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William Hutton

Alexis de Tocqueville

Robert Southey








 The toymakers' productivity

The toymakers' work ethic was the subject of a good deal of comment. This was William Hutton's recollection of his first arrival in Birmingham in 1741, from his native Derby: 'I was surprised at the place, but more so at the people. They possessed a vivacity I had never beheld. I had been among dreamers, but now I saw men awake. Their very step along the street showed alacrity. Every man seemed to know and prosecute his own affairs. The town was large, and full of inhabitants, and those inhabitants were full of industry. I had seen faces elsewhere tinctured with an idle gloom void of meaning, but here with a pleasing alertness.'

It was much the same story almost a hundred years later when, in 1835, the French writer and statesman  Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, 'These folk never have a minute to themselves. They work as if they must get rich in the evening and die the next day. They are generally very intelligent people, but intelligent in the American way. The town itself has no analogy with other English provincial towns. It is an immense workshop, a huge forge, a vast shop. One only sees busy people and faces brown with smoke. One hears nothing but the sound of hammers and the whistle of steam escaping from boilers' 

Sheer hard work apart, the secret of their productivity also lay in the use of ingenious production methods, and the intense specialisation they practised, which meant that everyone did only what they were expert and proficient at. 

The Swedish spy RR Angerstein made several comments on the  toymakers' ingenuity: (1) 'The equipment is ... so ingenious that it can produce twenty gross [of thimbles] per day with the assistance of six people'; (2) 'I saw a machine ... which was very clever'; (3) 'I saw here the casting, stamping, turning, polishing and scouring [of buttons] carried out very quickly and deftly, mostly with the aid of lathes.'

Benjamin Martin, a visitor from London in 1759, commented in similar vein: 'Their trade is remarkable, not only in England, but in all parts of Europe, from the ingenuity and multiplicity of its artificers in all small branches of iron manufacture, as well as ... snuff boxes, buttons, buckles etc ... which employs some thousands of its inhabitants, and in which no other town perhaps in all Europe can equal it ... So prevalent is the spirit of industry ... that you won't see an idle person lurking about the streets.' 

So did all this industry pay off? It would seem so. The town's prosperity was another cause of comment. William Hutton again: The outskirts of other towns 'were composed of wretched dwellings, visibly stamped with dirt and poverty ... But the buildings in the exterior of Birmingham rose in a style of elegance. Thatch, so plentiful elsewhere, was not to be met with in this place.' Victor Skipp reports that wages in Birmingham were generally double those in the surrounding areas.  And a proficient and hard-working toymaker could earn as much as three times the average English  craftsman's wage.

Why did they work so hard?

William Hutton was in no doubt about that; they were motivated by 'the view of profit'. 'The spirits which haunt Birmingham, ' he wrote, 'are those of industry and luxury.' Not content with the mere necessities of life, the Brummies wanted luxuries and were prepared to toil for them. They were also enterprising. Hutton goes on, 'Whenever the view of profit opens, the eyes of a Birmingham man are open to see it', and he cites examples of people who started new lines of business facing rapidly multiplying competition if the business proved lucrative. The whole atmosphere of the place encouraged industry. It was hard to be idle when surrounded by such intense activity, and hard to deny your family the luxuries the next man's had, when with effort the luxuries were within reach. 

Another factor was the prospect of social mobility. The nature of the trade, relying on the skill of the craftsman and requiring little in the way of machinery, and the way it was organised into small units, meant that relatively little capital was required to start a business. As J S Wright wrote, 'All that is needed for a workman to start as a master is a peculiarly shaped bench and a leather apron, one or two pounds' worth of tools ... and, for materials, a few sovereigns and some ounces of copper and zinc. His shop may be the top room of his house, or a small building over the wash-house, at a rent of 2s or 2s 6d per week, and the indispensable gas jet, which the Gas Company will supply on credit.' 

A witness to a Parliamentary committee in 1824 put it this way: 'If there is a spot in the world in which perfect community of interests between workmen and their employers is to be found, that spot is Birmingham ... for if the masters agree to pay less than their journeymen require, the man has nothing to do but go and manufacture the article himself.'

So it was not too difficult for a skilled and hardworking toymaker to become a master himself and raise his family up the social ladder. As William Hutton put it,  'Many fine estates have been struck out of the anvil'. According to Hutton, out of over 200 people (out of a population of 50,000) who were worth more than 5,000 (millionaires in today's terms), almost half 'began the world with nothing but their own prudence'.   




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'The people of Birmingham are more apt to get than to keep. Though a man, by his labour, may treat himself with many things, yet he seldom grows rich' - William Hutton

'I am still giddy, dizzied with the hammering of presses, the clatter of engines, and the whirling of wheels; my head aches with the multiplicity of infernal noises, and my eyes with the light of infernal fires. I may add, my heart also, at the sight of so many human beings employed in infernal occupations, and looking as if they were never destined for anything better.' - Robert Southey  (See below for a comment on this.)

'We went continually on foot, from one manufactory to another, and were highly entertained in seeing all the curious machines and expeditious ways of working.' - Benjamin Franklin, writing about a visit to Birmingham in 1758.

'I have seen fine swords, cane heads, snuff boxes and works of steel in Milan, but they can be had cheaper and better at Birmingham' - Frenchman Alexander Missen, writing in 1689.


Whilst the work was hard and sometimes injurious to health, and the early industrial towns were undoubtedly polluted, they were better places for many people to live than the countryside, where many suffered acute poverty. As the millions who voluntarily migrated from rural areas into the industrial towns in search of a better life could have told him, Southey was not merely being patronising, he was being downright silly.

In her poem 'Colebrook Dale', Anna Seward takes a much more balanced approach, deploring the pollution and ugliness, whilst recognising the wealth and dynamism of Birmingham as the other side of the coin.

2001, 2002, 2005 Bob Miles